Where Dancing May Lead

Right after dinner, my two older sisters and I would run downstairs to the TV/Rec room to catch our favorite show, Maverick.  Sister Laurie told me that when I was about three or four, I used to prance around a basement post located near that TV when the Maverick theme song came on.  Round and round and round I’d prance and skip delightedly to the rhythm.

Our parents, not generally open in their displays of affection, had one big exception. They liked to put on music and dance in our living room.  Dad was graceful, flowing in his motions. Mom was joyous and sometimes tearful in her poignant memories.   

As I grew, my prancing turned into dancing. And in surprisingly powerful ways, my lifelong evolving attitude toward dancing provides an accurate description of my self-image and maturity.

Other than play dancing with my parents or sisters, my first memories of dancing were at Camp Benbow. Benbow was a Jewish summer camp on the shores of “Beautiful Lake Tanwax.”  I was ten or eleven years old.

Benbow promoted two kinds of dancing, both in accordance with its mission to inculcate Jewish identity. First and foremost was Israeli-style line and circle dancing.  Sometimes these dances were gender non-specific.  Sometimes there were conscious boy-girl alignments. Usually this was to music with Hebrew lyrics.  

Certainly, I was aware of – and nervous about – this official authorization to hold girls’ hands.  And I was already strongly socialized to feel that holding a boy’s hand was a lesser, and even unpleasant, dance obligation. In that era, homosexuality was a subject of ridicule through snide remarks and cutting humor.  But the holding of hands and shoulders and even waists between boys and girls were clearly promoted as a socially appropriate means of easing into sexuality. And, given the traditional Israeli dancing style, very egalitarian between the sexes.

There was a second style of dance at camp, and that was pop culture rock and roll.  My favorite camp song was “Satisfaction” by the Rolling Stones, and Camp Benbow had dance nights, when us campers, none over the age of 12, and the counselors, aged 15 to 20, could rock out to fast shake-your-booty dancing.  In those dances, lots of kids at once could run out onto the dance floor without having to select a partner. Many times, we would just experiment with different dance moves which we learned from one another. For the most part we neither needed to be the center of attention nor awkwardly pair up.  Camp authorities were careful to only permit “slow dancing” later in the evening, to the benefit of the counselors and relief of us nervous young campers. But associating sexuality – in a controlled environment – with Jewishness was no doubt a deliberate strategy for advancing “the tribe!”

Seventh grade – my first year of junior high – was the first year my public schools had a sanctioned dance.  They called them sock hops. I had never danced one-on-one with a girl before, never had a girlfriend or even the start of one. There were girls, of course, in our classes, and I had a feeling that one of them, Marla, liked me.

What did “liked me” mean?  I had no idea.  I think it pretty much came down to the fact that she would be friendly and actually look at me with a smile.  Yeah… that was probably something.

In any event, I decided to go to the first sock hop of the year as an initiation ritual for teenage life.  Terrified, yet determined, I walked to the cafeteria in the early evening twilight. Upon arrival, I sought out other boys with whom I could stand around and nervously chat.  There soon became gender lines on each side of what was designed to be the dance floor.  Girls to the left, boys to the right. A DJ started playing pop music and some of the brave kids paired up and got on the floor.

There were fast dances intermixed with slow dances. The fast ones… I could do that.  Very awkward about looking into eyes, but bearable.  I went over and asked Marla, to dance during a fast dance song.  But then, with a slow music selection next, it was a big decision. Would Marla and I do it? The answer was yes. 

It was first time I ever felt a girl’s breast press against mine. I had no idea what it would feel like.  Turns out, it felt pretty good.

Never again did I go to a dance in junior high.  In seventh grade, when Marla and I did our thing, I was probably about 5’2”. By eighth grade, as my height increased, so too did the stakes at those cafeteria dances.  For by that time, kids were definitely pairing up.  Those kids who did not have boyfriends or girlfriends – like me – found the intimacy of the dances too intimidating. And the longer we fell behind sexually, the harder it was to feel a part of that scene.

As my height ballooned to 6’5” by the end of high school, so did my awkwardness about my body and my timidity with girls. While I was able to connect platonically with girls, often better than boys, I was insecure about my attractiveness. 

The only dance I attended up to and including high school graduation was in London, England when I was 17. I lived for five months with my mom and dad in the Belsize Park neighborhood, while dad was on sabbatical.  England had a long tradition of teenage social programming outside of traditional school. It was called “youth work” by social workers, and I joined the Northwest Jewish Boys and Girls Club, ostensibly to play ping pong, but also to connect more broadly with teens my age.  

While going to the club for some ping pong or chess, I was introduced to others in the club, including actual girls.  Funny thing about accents.  When yours is exotic, it can have its advantages.  One evening a big-eyed dark-haired girl named Sara approached me and asked if I was going to go to the club dance next week.  I replied that it sounded fun.  That became the second time I slow-danced with a girl.

I had been in a couple of theatrical performances in high school, so when I was in community college, I got my thespian juices flowing by joining the cast of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum[1]. The play’s choreographer was Bill Monroe, an ebullient African American man. “Daniel, you have a beautiful body!” he exulted. No one had ever told me that before. “Daniel, release your arms… jump and soar and spin….”  My character, Erroneous, was an old man who was said to be running around the seven hills of Rome. My stage entrances became an ongoing gag, as my tall, skinny frame repeatedly made strange galloping leaps across the stage. At the cast party, Bill and others showed me dance moves. For the first time in my life, I felt pride and even confidence in my moving body.

I don’t remember any dancing at The Evergreen State College. This, even though I had my first serious girlfriend at the time.  I think we enjoyed basketball and swimming together more than the dance floor. I also think that the sex role stereotyping of a typical college dance scene may have been worse than passe at TESC in those emotionally highly-charged feminist times. It may have been considered politically incorrect.

At UC Berkeley, dancing for the first time became a semi-regular social outlet with my student friends.  My moves were energetic and distinctive and lubricated by wine, and for the first time, dancing became not a source of awkwardness, but a welcome release from the tensions of school.

For the rest of my life, dancing has always been associated with intimacy and celebration.  At my first wedding, Jewish line and circle dancing became a comfortable and inclusive means of sharing the joy of the occasion.  Later, as a single man, contra dancing and square dancing at the South Bay Grange – again with line and circle dancing – was a deliberate and socially acceptable way for single people to share the gift of touch and maybe just maybe romance.

My wife Jean LOVES to dance. She took ballet lessons as a young girl, and her face is alighted with joy whenever she is dancing.  Early in our relationship, we learned salsa dancing as part of our comprehensive cultural effort at Spanish language acquisition in Buenavista de Cuellar, Mexico. We featured salsa dancing at our wedding a year later.

Jean adores the ballet and is convinced that I do not.  Every single time she suggests going to a ballet performance I enthusiastically say – with never a trace of snark – that I hope to go with her.  “You do not!” she responds.  “No, I LOVE the ballet. Can’t wait till we go again.”  We both smile. For different reasons.


[1] The actual performance was a hilarious and controversial flop. The director insisted on commedia dell’arte authentic wardrobes, which included stylized gigantic phalluses. As my character was an old man, my phallus, while huge, pointed straight down.  Thus, under my robe, it was hardly seen.  Whereas some phalluses were pointed straight up in the air or in the shape of a corkscrew.  These wardrobe details had not been explained prior to try-outs for the community college student cast that included some middle-aged men who refused to wear the pubic beasts.  They complained to the college administrators, but the director’s threat to those officials about interference with artistic expression – along with her lawyers willingness to pounce – won out.  A public warning “for mature audiences” was placed on the ads for the play. We performed – with full orchestra mind you! – in front of audiences between 2 and 8 people.  The finale of “Tragedy tomorrow, comedy tooo nighghghghghght!” was followed by rhythmic clapping from the enthusiastic matinee pair of the director’s friends.  Comedy indeed!

12 thoughts on “Where Dancing May Lead

  1. I see that you must have also survived the dreaded Heat Dome – lovely Marine breeze today and Marco and I took the light rail to Seattle to see Monet and the sea.

    AS you may know, I LOVE dancing!!!!

    Thought you would enjoy this Russian Jewish song/rap by Daniel Kahn, who also does a mean version of Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah in Yiddish.
    From one Daniel to another..

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_jSNoo5Mrjg
    [https://www.bing.com/th?id=OVP.EVxoku1vPQ1_gQmO7zvZngEsDh&pid=Api]
    Ekh Lyuli Lyuli
    Provided to YouTube by iMusician Digital AG Ekh Lyuli Lyuli · Daniel Kahn · Psoy Korolenko · Oy Division The Unternationale: The First Unternational ℗ Auris Media Auto-generated by YouTube.
    http://www.youtube.com

    “Ekh Lyuli Lyuli” by The Unternationale (Daniel Kahn, Psoy Korolenko, & Oy Division)
    Performed in Tel Aviv, 2008.

    The first part of it is the nigun (Jewish religious song/tune) of Jews recruited to the Russian Army under Nicholas I. It was learned from Michael Alpert. Apparently, “the musical style is Russian ’chastushka‘ that on occasion found its way into the Jewish folk songs (i.e. Chabad version of ehod miyodea).” The rap is by Psoy Korolenko.

    Lyrics
    The Jewish faith is this and this and this – you have to get up early
    Ekh lyuli lyuli da lyuli – you have to get up early
    You have to get up early, pour water onto your fingertips,
    Ekh lyuli lyuli da lyuli – pour water onto your finger tips
    Pour water onto your fingertips, say the first morning prayer
    Ekh lyuli lyuli da lyuli – say the first morning prayer
    Say the first morning prayer, go to synagogue
    Ekh lyuli lyuli da lyuli – go to synagogue
    Go to the synagogue, put on your tallis and tephillin
    Ekh lyuli lyuli da lyuli – put on your tallis and tephillin
    Put on your tallis and tephillin,
    Dedicate your soul to the Single and Unknown One
    And never close your eyes
    Stay alert and conscious,
    Don’t take anything for an ultimate truth,
    Question everything,
    Never… More

    ZEI GEZUNT

    Andrea

    ________________________________

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  2. Hi Daniel, I like this piece very much. It flows very nicely and the memories are very touching.

    It also brought a lot of memories back for me. I was 14 when I first danced a slow dance with a boy. A girlfriend invited me to her cousin’s Bar Mitzvah as they needed more girls. They had enough boys, but they had to ship in some extra girls. The dancing together turned out to be very sensual and I liked it a lot.

    Also I don’t think you know that I was a dance major at UCLA. I have a BA in modern dance. After college I continued dancing and performing. I too love the ballet. Goro does not love the ballet so I have to go with a friend.

    It is wonderful that you love dancing so much.

    You did a great job of writing in this piece.

    Shelley

    Sent from Mail for Windows 10

    Like

  3. How wonderful that you were a dance major! I certainly didn’t know that.

    One of the fun aspects of exposing oneself in blogs is that we get to learn about people in ways that we otherwise wouldn’t.

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  4. Dear Daniel,

    I loved your writing on Dance.

    I often thought that dance was a way of looking at my mother’s dissatisfactions with her life and the expectations for gender-based roles in society of the time–mainly 1950s which is where my memories of her come from. My mother was super-intelligent, athletic, and a fine ball-room dancer in an era that didn’t value or publisize those qualities and abilities in women. She spent a lot of time not expressing herself intellectually and athletically in this era of “poor li’l me, I just can’t understand anything so complicated” and “women and girls don’t sweat.” Dancing was also into following a man’s steps and rhythms although she could outdance and outlead almost everyone and follow perfectly while going backwards and wearing high heels. It also engendered a culture of women shielding and apologizing when their partner was the one who stepped on their toes. Her best qualities were suppressed and , I think, a source of frustration and maybe shame in her life.

    I always preferred 70s rock, Israeli, and Klezmer dancing because , in general, one’s skill and enjoyment did not depend on having a partner. It was quite liberating and the beginning symbolically of a new era in gender behavior and attitude.

    Keep on dancing, your cuz, Roberta

    Roberta Berg

    Like

    1. So pleased that you enjoyed the short piece and I loved hearing about your mom’s experiences. Well, if you have time and like thinking about mothers, here’s part one of a piece I did on mine. It’s rather long, but perhaps it is something to do in your convalescence!

      On Thu, Jul 1, 2021 at 12:37 PM Daniel's Derekh wrote:

      >

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  5. Delightful post.

    One incident to add. Sometime before you met Karen, you went with Robie and me and someone else to a bar in…maybe Ballard, where there was a live band and dancing. You were very reluctant to ask someone to dance because as you put it, it was wrong to show interest in a woman simply because you found her physically attractive. I tried to argue that finding someone attractive wasn’t enough to make for a good relationship, but it was an ok reason for a dance. Looking back I see how your reluctance could have been less about your hyper feminist consciousness and more about not wanting to expose yourself in front of your family to a potential public humiliation.

    Also. I found our parents to be quite physically demonstrative, especially in comparison with any other adult couples I observed at the time. Same family, different takes.

    Write on!

    Like

  6. Depending on the timing of the Ballard event, I’ll still go with hyper feminism as my thinking. Remember, I went to Evergreen in the 70s.

    Good point about our parents affection, in particular Dad’s verbal expressions. I’ll yield to your judgment on middle aged couples normal levels of PD of A.

    Like

  7. Daniel, I love this piece! It brought back memories of my own early experiences with dance, my first slow dance with a boy, and then my first slow dance with a girl when I was in college (in the 70s, Johnston was to southern California as Evergreen was to Washington). Thank you for expressing the joy and complication of dance for so many of us.

    Like

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